Recently I had the opportunity to take a class and assist Jeffrey Hamelman of King Arthur Flour. We used and discussed using sourdough starters in baking. I was already teaching it to my students so the timing was serendipitous. Jeffrey was kind enough to share a part of his starter with the participants. He brought the starter with him to King Arthur Flour circa 1998/1999. That’s mind blowing to me!
With Jeffrey, an all-purpose flour starter, in hand, I thought having another starter would be interesting and provide a great learning experience for the baker trainees. So, Jane Dough, a rye flour starter, came into the picture. Jeffrey is from Vermont and Jane Dough is from East Harlem and born on February 13, 2017.
It has been about a week, and the ladies are getting really into the idea of our starters and are treating them as pets. I’ve had them sign up to feed each.
In my excitement, I realized that I haven’t explained what a sourdough starter is and why you would want to have/use one. If you are interested in or know anything about food history, you know that bread has a very long and old history. Sourdough was thought to have originated in ancient Egypt. The story goes that a baker left dough out overnight. He came back the next day and noticed that it increased in size, so decided to bake it. The rest, as they say, was history.
I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but the basics remain to this day. Make a mixture of equal parts flour and water (by weight) and you have the beginnings of a sourdough starter. What happens is that in a few days, you’ll notice some activity (bubbles) and a yeasty smell. Wild yeast, which exists in naturally in the air, on our skin, and on the skin of fruits and vegetables, are attracted to the mixture. Once they are there, they participate in fermentation, which is a process where yeast will eat or convert sugar into carbon dioxide (air) and ethyl alcohol. This is the backbone of bread making as it allows, with the aid of protein strands better known as gluten, to leaven the dough (make it rise).
Some purists argue that using a sourdough starter is the only way to make bread. If you want to know more, there was a good article by Sam Sifton, in the New York Times last year, about the rise of sourdough starters as pets (click here to read it). I also highly recommend watching Netflix’s Cooked documentary episode titled Air.
I’ll update you as to how Jane Dough and Jeffrey are doing and how my students and I will be using them in our baking. Check back to find out more.